The dictionary defines dementia as a condition of deteriorated mentality. Alzheimers, although the most notorious, is only one of many dementia illnesses which impair brain function. Furthermore, it seems that when people talk about these brain illnesses, they emphasize the word memory memory problems. But dementia involves so much more than forgetfulness.
My husband has a neurodegenerative condition called Fragile X-Associated Tremor Ataxia Syndrome (FXTAS), which is caused by a genetic irregularity on the x-chromosome. Although FXTAS has its own unique pathology, the cognitive damage it causes in many ways resembles that of other brain illnesses.
In progressive neurodegenerative diseases, the manifestations of dementia most likely arise gradually - so gradually that it is likely that you would notice the earliest signs of a loved ones dementia only in retrospect. Subtle symptoms could have been presenting themselves for as much as several years by the time you actually suspected that cognitive failure was underway. Looking back at the years before my husbands physical symptoms of falling and difficulty with walking made me realize there was indeed a medical problem, the following signs of dementia were insidiously developing as his brain cells were dying and brain tissue was atrophying:
Loss of interest in work my husband and I worked together coordinating scientific conferences (he was a laser scientist); every year he would do less of the work and I would have to do more, until I was basically doing it all by myself. What looked like his loss of interest was probably his brain not being able to make proper connections.
Unrealistic goal-setting my husband also built lasers; at some point, he started to promise customers lasers that he would not get around to building. He also set unrealistic goals for the engineers who worked for him, expecting them to produce lasers without enough proper equipment. Having never seen a person with a dementia illness, I didnt know why my husband was acting like this, but I didnt suspect brain failure he was a brilliant man, a Ph.D. scientist.
Lack of logic I would get extremely frustrated repeatedly explaining obvious things to my husband that he did not seem to understand, like why we needed to close down his business because he was falling all the time; I just thought he was being stubborn.
Occasional irrational outbursts of anger over seemingly trivial matters.
Disinhibition saying things to people that were socially inappropriate.
Bad judgment in driving after a few little accidents, I took over all the driving.
Losing his car in a parking lot.
Poor judgment and money management problems not paying bills; not cashing checks; buying almost anything people tried to sell him (including new used phones for his office that contained cockroach eggs, and subscriptions to websites when he didnt even use the Internet);
investing money with disreputable people who took the money and ran (we lost a LOT).
Fatigue and lots of daytime naps.
Apathy towards me I thought he stopped loving me, but that wasnt true it was the illness.
And the standard symptom of losing his keys he left them in his post office mailbox before we went on a trip discovered them when we got home!
Taken alone and occasionally, the above symptoms may or may not imply dementia; but all together, it becomes evident that significant brain damage is taking place.
By Terri Corcoran, editor of Mainstay, newsletter of Well Spouse Association